The seniors began lining up early, pushing walkers or rolling their wheelchairs and motorized carts into the lobby, waiting for the horses to arrive.
They knew the “minis” would be small, but many still gasped with surprise when a horse no larger than a small St. Bernard entered the retirement home and was led through the building toward an outdoor atrium.
Every few feet, the miniature chestnut-colored female named Lunar would stop to greet an outstretched hand that trembled tentatively before stroking her thick mane.
“Look at the smile on her face,” said Paul Burrus, whose mother, Jacqueline, 90, blinked her blue eyes and clutched Lunar’s harness. “It’s nice. It’s something different.”
Lunar was among four miniature horses that visited assisted living facility Friendship Village of Schaumburg in suburban Chicago recently, courtesy of the nonprofit organization Mane in Heaven.
Founder Jodie Diegel started the group in 2012 and spent the first year raising money and training volunteers and the horses to meet animal therapy requirements. This summer the horses and volunteers have been booked every weekend, bringing their calming influence to facilities for adults and children, some with severe disabilities.
Studies have shown improved outcomes in the physical, emotional and psychosocial well-being of patients treated with animal-assisted therapy. At Linden Oaks Hospital in west suburban Naperville, for example, larger horses are used to help patients with eating disorders work through their emotions.
The miniature horses, while too small to ride, are less intimidating and more accessible to others — standing eye-to-eye with a small child.
“There’s a sense of wonderment, such joy and excitement,” said volunteer Tim Scotellaro, of suburban Crystal Lake. “It’s very rewarding.”
Mane in Heaven volunteers agreed that they, too, benefit from their role.
“It’s almost our therapy,” said supporter Dina Morgan, who raised money for a new “mini bus” to transport the horses. She recalled the reaction of a girl with Down syndrome during another event.
“She kept staring at the horse for a while, and finally she just gave him a big hug,” Morgan said. “Her face was right up to him. Her mom was so excited. … You wouldn’t think such a little horse would evoke such emotion from people.”
Twenty-two volunteers have been trained, along with horses Turnabout, Mystery, Lunar and Jenella, as an animal therapy team registered by the national organization Pet Partners. For six months, the volunteers desensitized the minis through play and grooming. They taught them to stand still, respond to simple commands and stay calm despite loud noises or sudden movements.
Handlers knew they had succeeded after two horses visited Chicago’s Loop and paraded through the Thompson Center without incident.
At Friendship Village, more than 200 people in the skilled nursing building asked to see the horses, a great showing for people who sometimes prefer to avoid activities, a staff member said. Dozens more from an independent living unit took turns petting the visitors.
“This is the surprise of my life,” said Mary “Miss Hollywood” Geils, 93, who earned her nickname by her oversized sunglasses.
Others admired the horses’ doll-sized shoes, made by Build-a-Bear, which help the horses avoid slipping while indoors.